ARC ROMANTIQUE = CHOPIN: Nocturne in B-flat Minor, Op. 9, No. 1;Nocturne in C-sharp Minor, Op. post.; BEETHOVEN: Piano Sonata No. 30 in E Major, Op. 109; Piano Sonata No. 31 in A-flat Major, Op. 110; LISZT: Apres une lecture du Dante: Fantasia quasi sonata − Alexey Lebedev (pn) − GENUIN GEN 20713 (2020) [Distr. AMPED™, 77:55] ****:
With the claim, “The night is the right hour for Romantic music,” this recital wishes to establish a spiritual kinship in three exemplary composers who shared a common temperament, despite their individual differences. And so, Alexey Lebedev (rec. 2-4 January 2020) has selected defining texts of the Romantic sensibility.
Few keyboard works convey the immediate, salon mystique as Chopin’s 1832 Nocturne in B-flat Minor, Op. 9, No. 1, his first published contribution to a form first developed by the Irishman John Field. An expressive Larghetto in 6/4, the music evolves via a bare, transparent melody in soft, repeated octaves, moving to an intimate, plaintive middle section in D-flat Major. Lebedev (b. 1980) maintains a fluid pulse, spare pedal, and instills a sense of sustained reverie. The coda, in dulcet tones, ends ppp in B-flat Major, so the transition from darkness to light has poetically been fulfilled.
Only recently did I watch the 2019 film Coda, directed by Claude Lalonde and starring Patrick Stewart as an aging pianist who faces both stage fright and the imminent loss of his mind. The Beethoven 1821 Piano Sonata No. 30 in E Major, Op. 109 makes its appearance in its last movement, Andante molto cantabile ad espressivo, its initial theme for later variations, as a suggestion of the protagonist’s grudging sense of acceptance of our mortal coil. Lebedev takes the opening impulse, Vivace, ma non troppo, in a brisk but pearly fashion, infused with an ennobled optimism. The vocal character of Lebedev’s playing proves his main asset, and this innate cantabile will prove most effective in the last movement. Lebedev’s approach to the stormy, E Minor Prestissimo has a marcato, studied effect, but it can burst forth in passionate explosiveness. Lebedev imbues Beethoven’s last movement with a sarabande’s noble stateliness, and the six variants flow with a natural sense of expressive, songful line. The composer most in harmony with this rendition must be Sebastian Bach, whose plastic, contrapuntal spirit seems to hover throughout Lebedev’s often delicate traceries. Variations three and five enjoy a playful, light touch. The third variation, the most obvious in imitation of a Bach study, has a lusty power invested into its intricate filigree. My favorite among the variations, No. 4, reveals a tragic wisdom that endures even past the last statements of the theme, in their spiritual fatigue.
On the opposite end of the Liszt Dante Sonata, Lebedev juxtaposes the most lyrical of Beethoven’s last three sonatas, that in A-flat Major, Op. 110 (1822). Suffice it to say Lebedev does equal justice to the paradoxical beauties of this sonata, whose emotional diapason embraces ethereality and vulgarity, grief and exultation, Classical and Baroque forms, even quoting moments from Op. 109. Already, in both these late sonatas, the trill has achieved a momentum, an expressivity, and a liberation that will culminate with Scriabin. Lebedev sets Liszt’s 1855 Dante Sonata as the centerpiece of this recital, ostensibly for its dramatic, programmatic, and epic intentions, to find a musical equivalent for Dante – via Victor Hugo – Dante, whom William Butler Yeats considered “the essential voice of literary Christendom.” Liszt’s appreciation of Dante’s symbolism of Inferno calls for nine distinct motifs – some based on the tritone – that correlate to the nine circles of Hell that punish those sinners who consciously turned away from the light of God, for the “fires of Hell,” to cite James Joyce, “give forth no light.”
Lebedev takes a fierce, unrelenting grip on Liszt’s one movement, cyclical work, whose harmonic transformations of theme well anticipate much of Mahler and those post-Romantics who embrace “progressive tonality” as their syntactical strategy. From a savage incursion and tumultuous spasm in D Minor we become transported into those Elysian fields inhabited by Dante’s Beatrice in Liszt’s favored key of F-sharp Major, whose decorative trills, in terms used by Clark Ashton Smith, “soar beyond the trammels of matter.” Lebedev’s pearly play, informed by a luminously inflected poetic temper, creates a cascade of spiritual ecstasy. Liszt’s raptures are no less tinged by that sense of sadness, in that “nothing proves more grievous than to recall moments of bliss in times of sorrow,” from the lips of Dante’s Francesca da Rimini.
Lebedev concludes his compressed tour of the Romantic sensibility with more Chopin, involving the martial, nationalistic spirit in the ubiquitous Heroic Polonaise of 1842 and the early (1830) Nocturne in C-sharp Minor, published posthumously in 1855. That the latter served to define Polish pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman’s will to outlast the horrors on WW II Nazism – illustrated in the 2002 film The Pianist – should guarantee its spiritual durability. I first heard it performed by Maryla Jonas, another Survivor. The Polonaise in this recording takes its urgent will to power from the concluding chords of Beethoven’s Op. 110 – and so the ensuing dance assumes epic proportions that yet retain the lyrical schwung and zal the music requires.